The cross appeared to reveal Roman might and Jesus’s weakness, yet paradoxically Christ conquered in seeming defeat, he completed his mission in apparent loss, he saved his people when it looked like he couldn’t save himself.7 This is the cruciform power and wisdom of God that turns conventional wisdom on its head and offers true help and hope for all who believe.
ABSTRACT: The Christian understanding of suffering centers on the cross of Jesus Christ. At the cross, Jesus fulfilled his Father’s plan, rescued his church, and ushered in the end of all suffering for all who believe. Christians still suffer as they walk through this cursed world on their way to glory, but they do so in hope. They pray not only, “How Long, O Lord?” but also “Come, Lord Jesus!” And until Christ returns, they follow him on the Calvary road.
Why do “bad” things happen to “good” people if God rules the world? Questions about suffering and loss such as this one have perplexed humanity for millennia. Some ancient philosophers reasoned that suffering isn’t really bad but offers people the opportunity to prove their true moral character.1 Modern secular thinkers conclude that God — if he’s out there — can’t keep good people from harm; we must make the best of suffering even if we don’t understand it.2 Hindus explain that the unfolding of karma brings physical and mental suffering that people must accept and endure.3 Ancient Jewish writers interpreted Israel’s sufferings as God’s chastisement for sins, which required repentance and sacrifice.4 Christians’ perspective on suffering — and all of life — is cruciform, cross-shaped.
Suffering and death have indelibly marked the human experience east of Eden. In the beginning, there was no cancer, coronavirus, or chronic pain — everything was “very good” (Genesis 1:31). Everything changed when sin and death entered the world, and creation itself “was subjected to futility” (Romans 5:12; 8:20). Suffering, sickness, and sadness accompany the “thorns and thistles” of creation’s curse and humanity’s “dust . . . to dust” sentence.5 Into this world of sin, suffering, and death, Christ came to save his people and set things right. Stunningly, the divine Son redeemed us from the curse by “becoming a curse for us” at the cross (Galatians 3:13). The God who rules the world designed for the best man to suffer the worst fate to save bad people.
Christ’s crucifixion is the foundation and focus of the Christian understanding of suffering, which is strange and offensive to all other worldviews. The Qur’ān emphatically denies that Jesus was actually crucified,6 and Paul called his message about Christ crucified “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23). But for Christians, the cross reveals Christ as “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:24). The cross appeared to reveal Roman might and Jesus’s weakness, yet paradoxically Christ conquered in seeming defeat, he completed his mission in apparent loss, he saved his people when it looked like he couldn’t save himself.7 This is the cruciform power and wisdom of God that turns conventional wisdom on its head and offers true help and hope for all who believe. The Bible presents Jesus’s suffering as necessary according to God’s plan, saving as a sinless substitute, and vindicated in the resurrection.
Jesus embraced suffering as his necessary destiny. He taught his followers that “he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Matthew 16:21). The Greek word dei, translated “must,” here and often in the Gospels carries the idea of divine necessity.8 Jesus states plainly that his passion is God’s plan. This teaching so shocked the disciples that Peter began to rebuke his Lord, saying, “Never, Lord! . . . This shall never happen to you!” (Matthew 16:22 NIV). Jesus neither avoids suffering as Peter demands nor minimizes the agony that awaits him. He sets his face like flint toward Jerusalem — “the city that kills the prophets” (Luke 9:51; 13:34) — because he follows the script of the Scriptures. On the night of his arrest, Jesus declared, “I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors.’ For what is written about me has its fulfillment” (Luke 22:37, citing Isaiah 53:12).
Consider the manifold suffering that Jesus experienced as he faithfully fulfilled his Father’s plan. While he agonized in prayer, sweating blood as he readied to drink the dreaded cup of divine judgment, his closest friends snoozed (Luke 22:42, 44). The disciples betrayed, denied, and deserted their Lord during his arrest and trial. The Romans slandered, spit on, scourged, and shamed the Savior. The Jews mocked and maligned their King and clamored, “Crucify.” The Gospels state matter-of-factly, “There they crucified him” (Luke 23:33). First-century readers did not need elaboration; they knew exactly what “crucified” meant.
The cross is commonplace in our contemporary culture, appearing on church buildings, jewelry, T-shirts, and bumper stickers. But in the ancient world, crucifixion was a scandal, an unmentionable horror. The Roman statesman Cicero called crucifixion “the most miserable and most painful punishment appropriate to slaves alone.”9 It was a shameful, painful public spectacle in which a condemned criminal was suspended naked from a tree to slowly bleed or suffocate to death. The Romans crucified slaves and traitors to humiliate them and send a message that would deter others from opposing Caesar. This is the death that the divine Son suffered willingly and necessarily to fulfill the Father’s secret plan.
See the price of our redemption
See the Father’s plan unfold
Bringing many sons to glory
Grace unmeasured, love untold.10